With the Oklahoma House of Representatives struggling to find a revenue agreement to plug a state budget hole in special session, Rep. Katie Henke (R-Tulsa) is out of the country.
Multiple people with explicit connections to Henke told NonDoc that the third-term lawmaker is traveling abroad — some said to Italy — on a family trip that was planned in advance.
Henke’s absence means GOP leaders are missing at least one caucus member who has previously supported revenue-raising measures such as the cigarette tax, which House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) has dubbed the “first priority” of this special session.
That measure could have been considered today or Thursday in the full House, and it would require 76 votes to pass without being placed on a statewide ballot for the public to decide. But the House announced early Wednesday that it would recess until a budget agreement is reached.
Henke did not respond to a voicemail or a text message sent to her cell phone Tuesday. The same day, NonDoc also asked her legislative assistant to email Henke a request for interview.
Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow) will also be absent, NonDoc has learned, although Ritze’s long history of voting “no” on tax measures has left Capitol insiders more frustrated by Henke’s truancy.
Henke serves as majority caucus secretary and a floor leader, according to her bio. She had been a member of the House Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget, but she was removed from that post for special session.
“Personally, I’m frustrated. I feel let down and definitely not happy about it,” said House District 71 resident Denise Brewer. “We’ve been talking about special session for months and months, and I would think there’d be a way to postpone a trip to Europe.”
A single mother who works in the publishing business, Brewer said she has lived in the central-Tulsa district for more than 20 years.
“That means our district doesn’t have a vote. We don’t have any representation at the Capitol when it’s really the most important,” Brewer said. “I’ve traveled extensively, and I know that things can always be rearranged.”
Brewer criticized Henke’s absence owing to the state’s dire budgetary situation, and although she is a Democrat she said her reaction is non-partisan.
“I am legitimately surprised,” she said. “I know the people I’ve spoken to are just as surprised. It’s kind of one of those shake-your-head moments.”
Echols in May: Serving Oklahomans a ‘privilege’
In May, three House Democrats were criticized for traveling to California during the final two days that revenue-raising measures could be considered. At the time, McCall said those members’ absence “tells me that they are not serious.”
House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) spoke then of the “privilege” that comes with being an elected legislator representing thousands of Oklahomans.
“If I call them to be up here to do their jobs, I expect them to do their jobs,” Echols said of his caucus members in May. “And I’m happy to be the bad guy because it’s a privilege to do this job.”
Echols declined to offer comment on Henke’s absence at time of this story’s original publication, but the pair were asked about Henke and Ritze’s absences in a press conference soon thereafter.
“One of the dynamics about special session is it is an extraordinary session, not an ordinary session,” McCall said. “The call comes quickly. It’s very difficult for everybody to adjust their schedules.
“They are on their way back. They will be here for the remainder of the session. (…) I suspect they will be here for any major votes that take place.”
McCall, Echols and another state representative had been scheduled to represent Oklahoma in Taiwan earlier this month, but the state diplomatic trip was cancelled owing to special session.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) held a press conference after McCall and said he did not know the circumstances of Henke’s travels.
“I don’t begrudge Rep. Henke for being in Europe. I can probably tell you that her trip has been more productive over the last three days than this building,” Inman said. “I just think it’s disingenuous for the speaker to say he has all the votes he needs when he has members gone.”
(Update: This story was updated at 11:18 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27, to include comments from McCall and Inman.)